Matt Merker and Corporate Worship

Something unique happens when a church gathers. People from different backgrounds, families, and ages—people that outside of church likely would not have anything to do with each other—when they come together on the Lord’s Day, their act of gathering is itself an act of worship. Of course in some sense, all of life is an act of worship. But in a different and more profound way, God designed the church gathering to be a unique expression of worship: corporate worship.           

This is the subject of Corporate Worship, a new book by Matt Merker. Merker has written many hymns, and is perhaps best known for “He Will Hold Me Fast.” But this book is so much more than a look at church music. Instead, it examines what makes the gathered church’s worship so privileged. The book is spent unpacking this sentence: “there is a connection between how a congregation understands itself to be a church and how it worships as a church” (p. 24).  In other words, to fully appreciate the dynamic of corporate worship, you have to step back and understand what a church is supposed to be in the first place.

To begin with, Merker argues that you have to understand that the church functions as an embassy. It is the gathering point for people who are immigrants in a foreign land. He compares the church service to a tailgate party in soccer stadium between two Central American teams (p. 35). The presence of the game brings people from those countries together, and they eat and listen to music and spend an afternoon together, remembering what life was like in their own country. This is what the church is supposed to be like, and only when a church understands that celebratory function, as well as the otherness it entails, is a church able to understand how it is called to worship.

Before explaining the content of this book, let me first pause her and explain why this is such a needed resource. There is a real confusion among many churches about what the church is supposed to be doing on Sundays. Some argue that is a gathering for non-believers, to draw them to Christ. Some argue that the church is supposed to appeal to those who don’t yet know Christ. When this ethos is embraced, it makes authentic worship almost impossible as a church. When churches lose their embassy-like nature, they exchange worship for pragmatism (doing whatever “works” to reach the world). Ligon Duncan, in the introduction, writes that pragmatism has “effectively de-churched many churches” and while those churches claim they want to “church the unchurched,” they will end up “unchurching the church” (p. 15).

With that in mind, Merker reminds us that the church is the unique gathering of God’s people, called out of this world and into fellowship. Thus the corporate gathering has special function because it is the expression of corporate worship. When you understand that, you cease to view “worship” as the singing, but rather as the entire gathering. In other words, we “don’t go to church to worship, we worship because we are the church” (p. 37).

So what does the Bible command concerning worship? Marker argues that there are five elements of corporate worship: The Word read, the Word prayed, the Word preached, the Word sung, and the Word seen. Or: Scripture reading, prayer, preaching, singing, baptism & communion (p. 82; later he shows the similarities between church worship and the wilderness gathering in Exodus 19-24, p. 105). When a church has those five elements, the church is fully embracing the corporate nature of worship.

The strength of Corporate Worship is how Merker applies the regulative principle to thinking through what takes place at church. Merker presents one of the most helpful explanations of the regulative principle that I have encountered (esp. pp. 77-88;). What I love about his explanation and defense of it is that he rightly treats it as a “principle” and not a rule. The main point of this section is really why I think his book will end up being helpful—he wants churches to think through worship not as if they are starting with a blank piece of paper, but rather as if they are starting with an order of service that flows from what God has called the church to do (read, pray, preach, sing, baptize, communion).

This would be a very helpful book for elders to go through together, or for a pastor to go through with those that plan the worship service (such as worship leaders, musicians, etc.). Merker frequently reminds the reader that he is not telling us what songs to sing, but rather giving us a framework to have a productive conversation about why we sing what we sing, and why we do what we do.

 There are certainly parts of this book I would disagree with. For example, he argues that churches shouldn’t do baby/parent dedications because (he says) there is not biblical warrant for them (p. 90). Yet he also argues that churches should read their church covenant at communion services (p. 130; I’d argue there is as much warrant for praying for children as there is for covenant recitation). He describes using grape juice for communion (p. 128; which is fine, but in a book that is tying the elements of worship to what the Bible says, I’d have at least liked a cross reference on that one), and he argues that churches should have women doing the Scripture readings in corporate worship (p. 118; I see Scripture reading in corporate worship as a task given to pastors—1 Tim 4:13, Acts 20:20—and can’t reconcile Merker’s logic with 1 Tim 2:12 and 1 Cor 14:33-34).

But again, the strength of this book is that it is designed to lead elders and pastors into a conversation about these issues that is rooted in what the Bible says about corporate worship. Reading it, Merker definitely gives the impression that he would be happy if churches disagreed with him on those issues, just so long as they are disagreeing with him because of their biblical convictions. This book is not written to talk you out of baby dedications, but rather to provoke your church to have a conversation about every element of worship framed by what the Bible teaches, rather than by “what works” or “what we have always done.”

If you are a pastor or elder trying to make sure your church leaders are all singing from the same page, this book would be very helpful to go through. You can get it at IX Marks for $8 each, or a case of 52 for $291.

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